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Earl Shorris

From Shorris’s NYT Obituary (6/3/12):

While education policy has leaned in recent decades toward giving students work skills, Mr. Shorris’s idea was to teach what he considered the ultimate skills: reflection and critical thinking, as taught by the humanities. “If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection,” he wrote in 1997.

“And that is a beginning.” The study of the humanities, he said, is “in itself a redistribution of wealth.”

It was while researching a book published in 1997, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy, that Mr. Shorris happened upon the vocation that would occupy his last years. He was interviewing inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, N.Y., asking for their opinions on why poor people were poor. One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked “the moral life of downtown” — meaning, she said, exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”

“You mean the humanities,” Mr. Shorris replied, surprised by her answer.

“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she said.

“Ms. Walker’s words triggered an epiphany of sorts, Mr. Shorris wrote in a 1997 Harper’s essay: Poverty was an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money. It was comparable to the experience of people chained to the wall of the cave in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he said: They see shadows on the walls, and assume that is all there is in the world. At the first Clemente Course meeting, “’I passed out their reading assignment. Of course, it was the Allegory of the Cave,’” he wrote.

I only have a few intellectual heros–Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange, Robert Hass–and Earl Shorris was maybe the only one who kept me up at night, thinking. I wasn’t raised to have intellectual interests and wasn’t familiar with the “moral life of downtown” until I went to college later (than most) in life.

I treat as a testable claim Shorris’s assertion that “if the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection … plays, museums, concerts, lectures” and critical thinking, but I’ve yet to encounter a better alternative.

How Shorris launched his presentation to twenty potential applicants for his newly developed humanities course directed toward the poor and disenfranchised in New York City:

You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political … if you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.